The Southern Uplands of Scotland are perhaps the least visited area of Britain. Stretching from the Rhins of Galloway on the rocky west coast to Dunbar on the eastern seaboard, just north of the border with England, they somehow remain largely undiscovered.
Yet for the enthusiastic walker they offer superb, varied scenery, away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds up north, and better yet, a world-class long-distance walking trail – The Southern Upland Way.
Running for 212 miles across the country, this is an adventurous undertaking. Established in 1984, it is in many ways an old-fashioned walking trail with long, strenuous days off the beaten track, and charming, traditional villages full of genuine hospitality and goodwill.
Sounds like a fantastic challenge but how difficult would it be to actually achieve? I had to find out for myself, so I laced up my walking boots and travelled south …
Nestling under steep cliffs and overlooking the Irish Sea, Portpatrick is not only the official start of the Southern Upland Way, but a charming village replete with excellent seafood restaurants. Having travelled down from Glasgow in blazing sunshine, I took the opportunity to jump into the sea and then dine alfresco, enjoying freshly caught mussels while the sun set. A perfect start to a walking holiday!
After only a day on the trail, the route passes through beautiful Castle Kennedy Gardens – the oldest of their kind in Scotland. Idyllically situated between White Loch and Black Loch, and famous for its colourful displays of rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias, the gardens are a real highlight.
Home to numerous sub-tropical gardens, the Rhins has a mild, gentle climate created by the Gulf Stream that allows palm trees and flora to grow at an unusually northern latitude, making this area unique to Scotland.
After a gentle introduction, following forest tracks and farm roads, the Southern Upland Way plunges into the captivatingly wild Galloway Forest and Dark Sky Park. Awarded its status as one of only four ‘Dark Sky Parks’ in the western world – its raw beauty is an experience to be fully savoured.
The terrain is tougher and more remote than encountered so far on the Way, but with over 7,000 stars and planets visible with the naked eye, we recommend trying to stay awake at night, although personally I didn’t manage to do so after a couple of long days spent in the hills.
From the green forests, granite hills and deep lochs of Galloway, the path winds its way up to Britain’s highest village, charming Wanlockhead (at a height of 1,532 ft).
Sitting below the steep Lowther Hills, Wanlockhead is home to the intriguing Museum of Lead Mining which explores the proud mining history of the local community. Once known as “God’s treasure house”, lead was first discovered in Wanlockhead by the Romans. Today visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the mine and a selection of delicious home-baked cakes.
Leaving enchanting Dumfries and Galloway behind, the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders now lie ahead. Fields scattered with wildflowers, huge fast-flowing rivers and pretty towns, with perhaps Melrose being the most picturesque, make up this beautiful region, and are all highlights of any Southern Upland Way walking holiday.
En route there are numerous places of historical interest to visit, including Traquair House, Abbotsford House and magnificent Melrose Abbey (pictured). With the most strenuous days behind, the scenery becomes gentler as the east coast draws nearer.
Looking back at my time on the Southern Upland Way, it becomes clear that it really is a challenging walk with superb highlights and raw beauty, running through an undiscovered and remote part of Scotland. But as with any adventure the rewards are abundant, and I can highly recommend this unexplored trail south of the crowds.
So whether you are planning to walk the whole route in two weeks or take a few years and do it in stages, the incredibly varied scenery, diverse culture and warm hospitality will not disappoint. And with every step you take, the secrets of the Southern Uplands will reveal themselves to you.
Til’ you reach the North Sea.